Jefferson County Republicans could play deciding role in choosing 8th District nominee
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – It was standing-room-only Thursday night for the second and, so far, last forum for the crowd of candidates seeking the Republican nomination for the soon-to-be-vacant congressional seat in Missouri’s 8th District.
The 12 participants all expressed similarly staunch views about cutting federal spending, reducing regulations, curbing the growth of the federal food stamp program and protecting gun rights.
The differences appeared to be more style than substance.
Judging by the private talk afterward, the GOP frontrunners are believed to Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, former state GOP executive director Lloyd Smith and state Reps. Jason Smith and Todd Richardson. Other well-known contenders include former state Sen. Jason Crowell and former state Treasurers Sarah Steelman and Wendell Bailey. Bailey, from Willow Springs, is also a former U.S. representative.
All are vying to succeed U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who is stepping down in a few weeks to head a major lobbying group in Washington.
But arguably one of the forum’s most important attractions Thursday night wasn’t on stage but in the audience.
The packed house included most of the GOP committee members from Jefferson County, who had driven down for their first look at 12 of the 13 contenders for the post. Many of the candidates and party activists took note of the Jefferson County presence – and for good reason.
Although the 8th District takes in about 20 counties in southeast Missouri, it’s the GOP leaders in Jefferson County – in the St. Louis suburbs – who will cast the largest bloc of votes and possibly determine the nominee.
Jefferson County GOP to play pivotal role
Jefferson County’s GOP committeepeople will cast 12 of the 8th District’s 86 Republican leadership votes, or about 15 percent. By comparison, that’s twice the six votes to be cast by Republican leaders in Cape Girardeau County, the most populous county totally within the 8th District and long its most influential turf.
But the 2011 congressional redistricting changed all that, when the district’s northern edge shifted much farther north to take in southern Jefferson County.
A state GOP spokesman also explained that the state procedures governing candidate selection, in cases such as Emerson’s departure, require that each county that has any part within the district has a say in the nomination process. And it’s all the county’s party leaders, not a proportional number, who get to cast the nominating votes.
In other words, Jefferson County’s Republican leaders arguably will have more influence in the selection process than the part of the county’s voters who will actually get to cast ballots in the as-yet-unscheduled special election.
Jefferson County’s clout is particularly intriguing because none of the 13 contenders for the 8th District congressional seat is from the county. “That makes it even better because it makes us much more independent,” said Terri Kreitler, a Jefferson County councilwoman and among the Republican leaders who will cast an 8th District vote.
During an impromptu break, the Jefferson County group casually discussed the various hopefuls, but each seemed careful not to show which way he or she might be leaning.
“As I hear them, it gets more difficult,’’ said Jefferson County Republican committeewoman Janet Engelbach.
Added John Gebel of Hillsboro, who also sits on the Jefferson County GOP committee: “They’re all pretty much on the same page.”
Candidates tout conservative credentials
The forum was sponsored by the Southeast Missouri Pachyderm Club, a Republican group, and came a week after a similar event in Salem, Mo.
For almost three hours Thursday night, the Republican audience listened – and many took notes – as each of the 12 candidates fielded a series of specific questions and then gave a closing statement.
Like a beauty contest, the other candidates were in a separate room so they could not hear the questions or answers until it was their turn to take to the stage.
The first question set the tone: Who was the Republican from the past 50 years whom the candidate most admired – excluding former President Ronald Reagan?
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the choice of Kinder and state Rep. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, with both lauding her toughness.
Crowell cited Winston Churchill for similar reasons. Steelman went with GOP icon William F. Buckley.
Richardson cited several tea party favorites, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, who was the running mate for last fall’s unsuccessful Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
None of the 8th District hopefuls praised Romney, with at least one – Brown – saying the GOP needed to shy away from such candidates.
Several rivals contended that the GOP did poorly in the November elections because its contenders had failed to be conservative enough.
All declared that they would not compromise when it came to basic conservative principles.
Afterward, the sequestered candidates flocked back into the meeting room to mingle with the audience – many of whom were party leaders. According to 8th District Republican Party chairman Eddy Justice, 52 of the 86 who will cast votes for the nominee had shown up.
Out in the hall, state Rep. Jason Smith – one of the contenders – shook hands with departing members of the audience. And he singled out the Jefferson County contingent.
“I’ll be there on Monday,” said Smith, as he shook Engelbach’s hand.
And how often has he met with the Republican leaders in Jefferson County? Replied Smith with a slight smile: “This will be the seventh time in two weeks.”